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M98 stirs questions behind closed doors


PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Alex Perez is one of the students enrolled in an auto tech course at Silverton High School. Measure 98 would help fund courses like this auto tech course.Measure 98 appears set for a smooth sail to victory on Election Day.

The statewide high school graduation measure has big-name multipartisan support through Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, Republican candidate for governor Dr. Bud Pierce, the Independent Party of Oregon and many others.

Backers also have amassed a war chest of $3.1 million provided mostly by the Portland-based national nonprofit Stand for Children.

That’s actually less than the yes campaign for its much more high-profile ballot neighbor, Measure 97. That may be surprising given that — unlike the controversial corporate tax measure — Measure 98 enjoys no organized opposition and has the support of 64 percent of respondents to a recent icitizen poll.

But despite the lack of vocal opposition, it seems that not everyone in Oregon’s education scene is fully on board the Measure 98 train.

The Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, an organization of superintendents and others in school administration, declined to take a position on Measure 98 at a late-August meeting at which it did endorse Measure 97.

The Portland Tribune asked why COSA remained neutral on a measure that claims to be able to raise Oregon’s perniciously low K-12 graduation rate — surely a goal that school administrators share — but spokesman Morgan Allen declined to elaborate.

“Our member meetings are not public meetings and we generally do not discuss/share notes of the deliberations,” Allen wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Pat Burk, formerly an administrator and principal at Portland Public Schools, has a few ideas about why the measure might be more controversial behind closed doors than it is in public.

“It has been a puzzle to me why there haven’t been more questions about where the funding is coming from for Measure 98,” Burk says, estimating that the measure would put a $290.6 million lien on each biennial state budget. “They don’t say where the new revenue is going to come from.”

Burk, now on faculty at Portland State University, says the initiative “doesn’t address, and could put some challenges on, things that we have already agreed to pay for,” such as full-day kindergarten, employee retirement benefits, higher education and more.

Measure supporters point out the set-aside would kick in only when revenue grows by more than $1.5 billion, which seems like a lot. But a recent state economists report says the cost of maintaining services can be more than that.

During the next biennial budget, even with the prediction of rising tax revenue, state economists still say the state is probably looking at a $1.3 billion deficit. Maintaining the current level of services, due to rising costs of labor, retirement accounts and supplies, will cost an additional $2.7 billion, they estimate.

Measure 98 would earmark $800 per Oregon high school student to a special fund at the Oregon Department of Education, which would distribute the money based on its weighted formula. School districts would have to apply for that money with a plan of how they are going to spend it on college credit classes, drop-out prevention programs or career-technical education, which research suggests improves student engagement and graduation.

That might work well in a district the size of Portland Public Schools, but Burk says smaller districts might not feel the few thousand dollars they would get is worth the administrative time.

He also says Measure 98’s encouragement toward dual-credit classes might cause higher education some heartburn.

Indeed, Portland Community College has remained neutral on the measure, too.

“The PCC Board of Directors hasn’t taken an official position on Measure 98; however, as a college, PCC is excited about the conversations occurring in Oregon regarding the pipeline for career technical education degrees and workforce training as well as high school completion through to college success,” writes Robert Wagner, Portland Community College’s associate vice president of College Advancement.

Colleges, Burk says, are “not universally in favor of college credit in high schools. That’s controversial in Oregon.”

This is because the certification requirements to be a college teacher are higher than for a high school teacher — so who gets to decide what is a college-level class and who is qualified to teach it?

A smart use of state funds

Toya Fick, executive director of Stand for Children Oregon, says the campaign hasn’t engaged much with higher education.

“We stay really focused on the K-12 space,” Fick says.

And just about everyone agrees that space is struggling in Oregon.

Oregon’s eighth graders tend to lead the country in test results, but four years later their high school graduation rates are some of the worst in the nation.

“And that is not a new story,” Fick says. “We actually really do need to put some focus on our high schools.”

Stand for Children is a national organization with deep pockets. The organization’s 2014 tax forms listed nearly $5 million in revenue for its lobbying arm and $18.3 million for its policy arm. The 2015 tax returns list $3 million and $8.7 million, respectively, with nearly $20 million in combined assets.

Most of its work has been through chapters outside Oregon, such as in Massachusetts where it recently pushed for a measure requiring state testing.

“It’s time to make it better in Oregon, where we are based and where we started and where we still have a lot of work,” Fick says.

Tim Nesbitt, a longtime political player in Oregon and consultant on the Measure 98 campaign, agrees. Nesbitt says with a $21 billion general fund, this measure is a smart use of state money.

“The challenge has always been, not on the revenue and resource side, but on the spending side,” Nesbitt says.

Asked if that aligns with the anti-Measure 97 argument that the state doesn’t need new revenue, it just needs to spend what it has more wisely, Nesbitt says judiciously: “One can say that, (it’s) certainly a point that can be made. It’s not one that we’re leading with.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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